A glimpse into the future.
Our children will not own cars.
I was getting a bit annoyed as it was now more than 5 minutes since I had called Uber Auto. I’m not usually left waiting this long. If they take more than 10 minutes, the ride is free.
Uber Auto stands for Uber Autonomous (not Automotive). It’s a self-drive taxi service that is winning over more customers each year. It’s one of two self-drive taxi services, the other is Tesla’s Zoom.
The car arrived. It parked outside my apartment. As I approached I heard the doors click open. I stepped into the back and punched my destination into a large iPad fixed to the back of the front seat. I was going to the city. The fare was announced – $7. I swiped my credit card. The doors locked. A mechanical voice announced “We should be at our destination in 27 minutes.”
Seven dollars for a 27 minute ride! Not bad.
Uber began experimenting with self-drive cars in 2016. Eighty per cent of the cost of an Uber ride is the driver. Take away the driver and you have cheap transport.
The Uber experiment in Pittsburgh initially began with two engineers sitting in the front seat of the self-drive car. One behind the steering wheel and one monitoring the car’s elaborate computer system. After a short time, only one engineer was necessary and three years ago, no engineers.
Last year they removed the steering wheel from the car as passengers were a bit unnerved by a spinning wheel with no human behind it.
“20 minutes to our destination.” the mechanical voice announced as it changed lanes to overtake a slow moving vehicle.
The interior of the car is spacious. It’s amazing what you can do with a car interior when you do not have to accommodate a driver.
The ride is very comfortable. The movement of the car is controlled by a gyroscope which limits the G-force generated inside the car. Another benefit that could only be achieved once the human element was removed. A computer controlled car does not accelerate quickly, turn sharply or change lanes abruptly. The rear wheels turn to ensure smooth turning. The gyroscope arrests the car’s movement to avoid any jolts and bumps. Fuel economy is at an optimum.
Autonomous cars communicate with each other. When two or more autonomous cars are together on the road they drive as a “platoon”. Travelling within 30 centimetres of each other. This means that traffic takes less space on the roads and moves more efficiently. At a set of lights, they take off together reducing travel time.
Autonomous cars have revolutionised the way we move around our city. They are cheap, reliable and safe. They comprise 30 per cent of all vehicles on the road and that number is increasing. The major car manufacturers re-tooled their assembly lines six years ago to produce autonomous cars.
Human-driven cars are now the main problem in automotive travel…. but not for long.
Human-driven cars are responsible for all road trauma and congestion. For this reason insurance for human drivers has become costly. By contrast, the increasing number of people who rely on Uber Auto or Zoom do not pay insurance or petrol or registration or mechanical repairs or servicing or garage or parking costs.
There are those who own their own autonomous cars. They have proved to be a boon for the elderly and less abled in society.
But economics is pushing heavily against human driven cars. It has become prohibitively expensive to own and drive your own car.
The take-up of self-drive taxis has surpassed the take-up of emails in the 1990s, the take-up of smart phones in the 2000s. It is a popular idea for our time.
“Ten minutes to our destination.” I am informed as I surf the channels on the car’s iPad. A number of people read during their journey. Travel in a busy city has become stress-free.
The Uber Auto and Zoom cars are packed with technology. On the roof is a bank of cameras pointing in every direction. Above the cameras is a small tower crammed with communications equipment.
The cars are driven by cameras and lasers. The exterior of the car including the space beneath the car contain cameras. The interior of the car is covered by cameras.
Unfortunately, there is no privacy in this modern world. Unruly behaviour by passengers is not tolerated. Last week some passengers decided to hang out of the windows of their Uber Auto taxi. The car detecting a breach drove itself to the nearest police station, locked its doors and waited for the police to act after watching the footage captured on the car’s cameras.
In a controversial move Uber agreed to release to traffic authorities, footage captured on their cameras. This has resulted in a significant increase in the prosecution of human drivers for traffic violations. You can’t argue with the camera. Beside improving road safety, the ever-present cameras are causing people to move to autonomous cars either owned or shared.
Yes, there were accidents and a number of fatalities in the initial trial period but modifications and improvements in the technology has reduced the number of accidents. In our state there has not been a fatality in or caused by an Uber Auto or Zoom car for three years!
Road trauma statistics fall each year. Some hospitals have closed down their trauma centres. Healthcare is finding new issues on which to focus.
The autonomous cars are ugly in appearance. Every flat surface is covered in photo-voltaic cells. There is a small wind turbine atop the communications tower on the roof. For cars that require lots of energy, every little bit helps.
These self-drive taxis are covered in thick rubber to reduce damage caused by human-driven cars. Indicator/turning lights run the full length of the car, again for the benefit of human drivers. The cars are well lit at night both for the effective operation of their camera system and (again) to avoid accidents with human drivers.
The flow of traffic has improved and continues to improve. A reduction in the number of traffic accidents has reduced congestion. All trucks are self driven these days. They operate from 8pm to 6am. Trucks by night and cars by day.
Car pollution is in decline. The smog that normally envelopes the city has not been seen for over a year.
Uber’s fleet run on LPG, although the number of electric cars is increasing as battery technology improves.
Tesla’s Zoom fleet is powered exclusively by electricity. In our state of 7 million people, Tesla is introducing new infrastructure.
In the north of the state, where the sun shines 300 days of the year, Tesla, with government support, has established a solar power plant. One hectare of mirrors capturing the sun’s energy. Tesla’s plant covers 15% of the state’s energy needs. There are plans to build a second plant.
Tesla has also established battery swapping stations around the city. The idea of such stations fell out of favour in about 2015, but with the surge in autonomous electric cars, the feasibility of such stations has changed.
In less time than it takes to fill your car with petrol, the autonomous car drives to a station where a robot removes the old battery from beneath the car, and inserts a new, fully charged battery. Each battery gives the car 200 kms of drive-time, more for non-taxis that carry no internal cameras.
The Tesla cars have three batteries. Two permanent and one changeable. All three batteries are charged when the car is idle, so there is little reason for attending a battery swapping station.
Batteries cost $100 to replace but they are getting cheaper each year.
The city has only 6 battery stations but there are plans to construct many more as traditional petrol stations close down.
“”You have now arrived at your destination. Thanks for travelling with Uber Auto. Please take time to rate your ride. Tell your friends.” the mechanical voice pipes in.
These self-drive taxis rely on technology that dates back to the beginning of the 21st century. The next generation of self-drive taxis will include artificial intelligence. These taxis will be able to think for themselves.
The year is 2025.